Water & Drought

California delays opening of crab season amid toxic scare

Video: Toxic Dungeness crab prompt health warnings

A massive coastal algae bloom fueled by El Niño has prompted a warning of potentially fatal toxins in California crab meat and could delay the start of Dungeness crab-fishing season indefinitely.
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A massive coastal algae bloom fueled by El Niño has prompted a warning of potentially fatal toxins in California crab meat and could delay the start of Dungeness crab-fishing season indefinitely.

The California Fish and Game Commission voted Thursday to delay opening of the crab-fishing season as officials scramble to deal with a massive coastal algae bloom that has infected Dungeness crabs with a toxin that is potentially fatal in humans.

Meeting by conference call, the commission voted 3-0 to delay the start of the recreational crabbing season, which was supposed to begin Saturday. Officials said the season would open once the toxins, which the crabs eventually flush out of their systems, are reduced to safe levels.

The decision on whether to also delay the start of the commercial Dungeness crab season, set to open Nov. 15, is up to the director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Craig Shuman, the department’s marine regional manager, said the department is “working as fast as we can” on an emergency closure and that a decision would come in a couple of days.

The vote came two days after the Department of Public Health issued an advisory warning against consumption of California Dungeness and rock crabs because testing had detected unsafe levels of a toxin called domoic acid. The toxin is spread through single-celled algae that have appeared in a continuous bloom along the entire Pacific Coast, as far as Alaska. The potent neurotoxins can accumulate in shellfish and other invertebrates and fish that feed on creatures that eat the algae.

Mild cases of domoic acid poisoning can cause vomiting, diarrhea and dizziness in humans; severe cases can bring permanent memory loss, cardiac arrest, seizures or even death.

“This is something we absolutely have to do,” said Fish and Game Commission member Eric Sklar.

The season will stay closed until the Department of Public Health and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment say the crabs are safe to eat. “When it’s clear, we’ll get the fisheries open as soon as possible,” said Sonke Mastrup, executive director of the commission.

The algae bloom has been fueled by the unusually warm ocean temperatures accompanying the El Niño weather pattern. The bloom has prompted health warnings this year about toxins in a range of seafood, including certain anchovies, mussels and sardines on California’s Central Coast, and a variety of shellfish in Oregon and Washington.

The commission also voted to temporarily stop the recreational rock crab season, which is supposed to be open year round.

The looming decision on commercial fishing will affect an industry already dealing with the shortened season for Chinook salmon, a casualty of the state’s four-year drought.

“We understand the necessity for the closure,” said George Osborn, who represents the Coastside Fishing Club, a Bay Area recreational fishing group. “None of us like it. You don’t like it. We don’t like it. But we don’t want anybody getting sick.”

Not everyone who addressed the commission Thursday was in favor of delaying the season.

“We don’t have data in any of our crabs that support this (closure) right now,” said Bill Gerard, a Santa Barbara commercial rock crab wholesaler and fisherman.

He said that because the toxins are typically only concentrated in the guts of rock crabs, he should be allowed to continue to sell their claws. He said some other states have allowed that practice during algae blooms and their crab claws remain safe to eat. Instead, he said he’s watching his crab buyers overreact.

“The dock was crazy last night,” he said. “All our buyers canceled their orders.”

Commission officials advised Gerard to take his concerns to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which will rule on the fate of the commercial industry.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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